Dougal trundled in under the blue and purple trees, a script poking from under his voluminous fringes. His head was safely swathed in plastic; nearby the sweaty red face poking out of his matted nylon hair belonged to actor David Moran.
'It's hell,' he admitted, scrambling out of Dougal's eviscerated belly to reveal bare chest, green shorts and knees already rubbed bald in rehearsal. He will spend the entire two hours of each performance of the new stage version of The Magic Roundabout, currently rehearsing in Carshalton, kneeling on a wheeled platform inside Dougal's hollow tummy. He scoots along with his feet to achieve the desired Dougal glide and can even manage the characteristic testy scurry-in-a-tight-circle. To try to keep the temperature down inside, a fan is to be installed in Dougal's bottom. 'I tried wearing a T-shirt but it was just wringing wet,' sighed David Moran, but his enthusiasm is unshaken. 'Dougal is the Wolfit of dogs.'
Ermintrude, an immense pink balloon-shape with roller-skate wheels under her back legs, has a visibility problem. 'I can't see backwards, and very little forwards. Luckily she is very slow-moving,' says Anne 'Ermintrude' Fawcett, who has worries of her own. 'I've done a lot of community theatre, but nothing of this magnitude. I pray I don't fall over. This is not the sort of costume to lose control of.' Anne feels some affinity with the snooty but likeable cow - 'a bit like Edith Evans'.
The transition to the stage is the latest move in a widespread Roundabout revival. Created by French film-maker Serge Danot, whose Gallic stars are Pollux, Ambroise et Flappy rather than Dougal, Brian and Dylan, it was first shown on British television in 1965. According to David Graham, author of the stage show, the late Eric Thompson would watch the French episodes with the sound turned down and concoct an appropriately surreal script (basing Florence on his daughter Emma); Nigel Planer writes the current Channel 4 series in the same way.
Athena and Mothercare are about to launch Magic Roundabout greetings cards and bedding to join the jigsaws, vacuum flasks, books and videos already on the market. However, the hardcore Roundabout aficionados are not tiny tots or even the fans from the first time around ('I'm not sure if Dylan would still be considered 'cool' in 1993 . . . Over and out . . . Boinnng,' says Roy Wood, a Roundabout contemporary). The cult is strongest among students, particularly those leaping on the trendy hippie bandwagon. 'It captures the Sixties ethos,' agrees David Graham. 'And it's the drugs thing - Dougal eats sugar lumps and strange things happen, you can ask loads of questions about what kind of grass Ermintrude eats.'
Dylan the spaced-out rabbit - 'Hey maaan, it's all a question of time and space' - is the favourite. Cool students at Bournemouth University hang out in the Dylan's Joint bar, admiring the Roundabout murals. 'It's very, very relaxed - low ceilings, low lighting, low-key bands - once it's full and there's lots of smoke it's very intimate,' says Portia Tertullien, the deputy Union President. 'It's very addictive - people come in at lunchtime and stay all day. It's responsible for them missing quite a few lectures.'
'My birthday cakes have been in the shape of Dougal every year since I was two,' says devotee Robin Ince, 23, a London University English graduate. 'It has enormous appeal to a lot of adults - some of the references are way beyond a five-year-old. Dougal says things like 'I bet this never happens to Sergei Eisenstein' and Brian the Snail quotes Christopher Isherwood. The Dougal and the Blue Cat film should be watched with a bottle of red wine when you come in at one in the morning and can't face Nikita or Betty Blue. It has a guest vocal by Fenella Fielding - the whole thing is high camp. It's like Salvador Dali meets Lassie.'
'I'm pretty keen on Dylan. He's so laid back, a bit of a weirdo,' says Andrew Daly, of Aston University's Kids Television Is Ace Gang (KTAG). 'Once a week we sit and watch videos in the bar - Captain Pugwash, DangerMouse. The Magic Roundabout is classic - a chance to go back to your childhood. I don't get requests for anything modern - things like the Ninja Turtles are all too violent.' A connoisseur, he prefers the vintage series - 'Nigel Planer's too intellectual, Eric Thompson was more down to earth.' According to KTAG founder-member Andrew Whitting, 'Dougal's the star.' He refuses to be drawn into seeing the Roundabout resurgence as a sign of a new age of happy hippiedom. 'I'm not a philosophical person. We watch it because we enjoy it.'
'The Magic Roundabout' 38-week national tour starts 22 February. Details: 081-977 8707.
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